One Thousand Scents

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Art: Etat Libre d'Orange Rossy de Palma Eau de Protection

When Coco Chanel said, "a woman must smell like a woman and not like a rose," she was talking about her hyper-modern No. 5, a reaction to the simple one-note floral perfumes of the day. No. 5 smells of roses (among many other things), but in a veiled, abstracted way: it doesn't smell specifically like roses or jasmine or vetiver or, in fact, anything except itself.

But Chanel was wrong in hindsight. She couldn't have foreseen truly modern perfumery, in which people can smell like pretty much anything they want to, because there is a commercial fragrance for that: hot tar, plums, pine needles, clean dirt, whatever. If a woman (or a man, for all that) wants to smell like a rose, who is to say that she's wrong, or that that isn't what a woman smells like?

And what do you suppose this sublime creature below smells like?

She is Rossy de Palma, as seen above in the George Michael video for the song "Too Funky" (also worth watching for the spectacular Linda Evangelista) and below in Pedro Almodovar's "Law of Desire"

and one look at her tells you that she is Picasso's Dora Maar

arisen from the canvas like Venus from the waves.

Since her given name is Rosa--Rossy is a nickname, the equivalent of Rosie in English--then she ought to smell, contrary to Chanel's dictum, like a rose, wouldn't you think? Etat Libre d'Orange presumably did, because she was the namesake of their first celebrity scent (their second was for Tom of Finland). But not some prim, dainty English rose: it would have to be a force of nature.

Rossy de Palma Eau de Protection is a huge, gorgeous rose scent; clear and fresh, with nothing old-fashioned about it (unless you are determined to believe that some things like roses and lavender must by definition be old-fashioned). Whatever top notes there might be are immediately subsumed under the tidal wave of rosiness, with green leaves and long stems and a bit of thorn in evidence as well. It is breathtakingly bright and sharp, made sharper with a sprinkling of beguilingly harsh spice, mostly black pepper.

Underneath it all, though, is a gathering darkness: a deep, almost funereal gloom, a gothy drenching of ink-black patchouli mitigated, but just barely, with a dab of sweet benzoin and something that may or may not be chocolate. This is what L'Artisan's Voleur de Roses (another rose-patchouli composition) ought to have been.

Rossy de Palma Eau de Protection is pricier than the main Etat line: they run $69 at the moment, while the two name scents are $90. (Presumably the namesakes are getting a cut.) But this is one celebrity fragrance that's worth every penny.


Friday, July 24, 2009

What the?: Etat Libre d'Orange Encense et Bubblegum

“People have been cooking and eating for thousands of years, so if you are the very first to have thought of adding fresh lime juice to scalloped potatoes try to understand that there must be a reason for this.”

--Fran Lebowitz

The thing about Etat Libre D'Orange scents is not just that they're perverted--those épater-la-bourgeoisie labels and smutty names--but that they're perverse. Perfumery has been around for thousands of years, modern perfumery with its glorious synthetics for a little over a hundred, and nobody has previously thought of mixing the smells of bubble gum and incense. Nobody before Etat Libre D'Orange, anyway, with their Encens et Bubblegum.

It doesn't smell like bubble gum, though. They got that wrong. Bubble gum has a very specific, synthetic candy smell. It smells fluorescent pink. The first thing you smell in Encens et Bubblegum is a little closer to one of those scented Japanese erasers: sweet, fruity, a million miles from anything that nature has ever produced. If it smells like something you'd put in your mouth, it's a decent approximation of Adams Sour Gum, no particular flavour, just sour gum with a synthetic-fruit flavour. (Chewing gum and bubble gum don't smell the same, I hardly need point out.) This is soon joined by some sweetened flowers--mostly vague orange blossom--and some sweetish, smokeless incense.

After the top has faded a little, it's absolutely, single-mindedly linear. It's that sweet artificial-fruit scent and that subdued but sweet incense scent and that's it. For hours. Why is it so often the case that the things you love fade so quickly, and the ones you could live without (not to mention the ones you hate) just keep going and going and going?

It's not terrible. It isn't really much of anything, to be honest. It just is. The incense is very nice, but the whole composition is pointless: minor strangeness for its own sake. The ELdO scents aren't expensive, but I have a feeling that if you bought a half-ounce of Demeter Bubble Gum (which I haven't tried, but which almost certainly has to be closer to the mark than this) and one of Incense (which is pretty much identical to that in Encens et Bubblegum) and mixed them, you'd have something similar, probably better, for a lot less money.


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Mister Right: Je Suis un Homme by Etat Libre D'Orange

Etat Libre D'Orange is a French niche perfume line which exists mostly for shock value, or would if its scents weren't any good, which in fact they (or at least some of them) are.

The shock value, though, is indisputably front and centre. Here's the illustration for their Vraie Blonde ("Real Blonde"):

And here's Sécretions Magnifiques (you can figure that one out for yourself):

And here's a bunch of other graphic design, including a woman's lips blowing a breast-shaped bubble (Encens et Bubblegum), an ambisexual mask (Delicious Closet Queen), and a phallic key penetrating a vulvar keyhole (Putain des Palaces, "Hotel Slut"):

Je Suis Un Homme means "I'm a Man", and the packaging shows a pistol morphing into a penis; all the subtlety you would expect from the company.

My first thought on my first wearing of Je Suis Un Homme was, "Leather!", and then immediately thereafter "Citrus!", and then a fusion of the two ideas: "Oh, my god, it's Christian Dior Eau Sauvage Fraîcheur Cuir!"

And I think it is, too, only Etat Libre D'Orange came up with it a year earlier.

The classic Eau Sauvage, a radiant citrus-floral chypre for men, spawned a flanker, Fraîcheur Cuir ("Leather Freshness"), which replaced the light chypre base with leather and wood: it was launched in 2007 and discontinued not too long afterwards. I smelled it in the Gatwick duty-free shop on my way out of London in September of 2007, and like an idiot didn't buy it: I thought I'd already spent enough on fragrances for one trip. And until the day I tried Je Suis un Homme I was pining after it, based on that one brief memory, because it was so obviously good. But we always want the things we can't have, don't we?

Since I can't compare the two directly, all I can go on is my memory of Fraîcheur Cuir and the reality of Je Suis un Homme, and the two are, if not the same, then twin brothers. Fraternal twins, maybe, but twins all the same. Je Suis Un Homme starts off with its two ideas immediately evident and equal in strength: radiant, dazzling citrus and a recently tanned cowhide. It's tempting to call it purely masculine, since it unites two of the staple ideas in men's perfumery, the citrus cologne and the leather chypre: but of course there have been leather chypres for women since the early days of the twentieth century, and women have been wearing citrus colognes for longer than that, so perhaps it's safer to say that despite its name, Je Suis un Homme is a unisex scent with a masculine edge.

As always, the citrus quickly burns up, though it's extraordinarily bright while it lasts. The leather that remains gradually gets deeper and richer, augmented by a spiciness and a slug of patchouli for good measure. (What would perfumery do without patchouli? It seems to be in everything I wear these days.) It is thoroughly animalic and almost indecently sensuous, as a good leather scent should be. The lasting power is not what you'd expect from an animalic fragrance, though: it starts to lose any carrying power after only a couple of hours, turning into a skin scent that can only be detected at close range--no bad thing for something this sexual, but this is a real deterrent to some people, who (understandably) want something that lasts a whole day. But the scent is so reasonably priced for a niche offering--50 mL for $69 at Luckyscent, no more than you'd pay for any department-store brand--that I think it's well worth it.


Monday, July 13, 2009

She's So Unusual: Anné Pliska

Anné Pliska is the very essence of a niche scent. First of all, hardly anyone has ever heard of it: it isn't available for purchase at very many places (or "doors", as they call them in the fragrance-marketing biz), so you generally have to order it online, from Anné Pliska herself or from a retailer such as Luckyscent. Second, it isn't quite like anything else you've ever smelled. And third and most interesting, it's the only scent in its line: no flankers, no multi-fragrance lines like the Chanel Exclusifs or the Tom Ford Private Collection, no mad profusion of scents to fill every available category or style currently in fashion. It's just the one thing, just Anné Pliska: take it or leave it.

It's an amber oriental, and at first breath, it calls to mind two other ambers: Calvin Klein Obsession and MPG Ambre Précieux, two fragrances that have amber running throughout from top to bottom. Anné Pliska opens right away with warm, sweet amber, tied to an orange note like that in Obsession. And then when you think you have it pegged, it just gets weird.

After the orange starts to evaporate, in about ten minutes, you begin to notice...wet cardboard? Something damp and pulpy, anyway. It resolves itself into subfuscous jasmine and a bit of dirty patchouli plus dark-green geranium which together provide a herbal quality that keeps the scent from being just warm and cosseting: it smells like something odd and slightly dangerous is going on, something unsettled that you can't quite put your finger on. (It's like the geranium in Old Spice, but without the gasoline.) There are also occasional glimpses of barnyard, not manure but that deep loaminess that's pure barn. There is still amber playing alongside these strange and fascinating elements, mind you: it hasn't gone anywhere, but it stands in contrast to these outdoorsy pieces and parts. All in all it is genuinely odd, and at odds with what the Anné Pliska blog calls "the most beautiful perfume in the world". Not that it isn't beautiful: but it is a rarefied and uncommon definition of beauty.

Eventually, a couple of hours later, the weirdness starts to subside and is slowly replaced by a plush vanilla and quite a lot of powder. Some people don't get the powderiness, but I definitely do, and in concert with the amber it's lovely and cozy. Anné Pliska is occasionally described as "chilly", and for a while I can sort of see it, because that bright, fresh orange at the top leading into the enigmatic middle are not what you'd expect from a warm amber scent; but that ending is pure boudoir.

I am not sure how I feel about the packaging. The perfume, though in a nice pared-down bottle, is a baffling and vivid pinkish hue, and the eau de parfum, while tinted the approved dark-gold colour of other orientals such as Youth Dew and Obsession, is in what can only be called a very cheap-looking bottle. But the price is right. You rarely see perfume any more: most commercial fragrances are only available as an EDP or EDT spray, and scarcely anybody makes perfume except the old houses like Chanel and Caron, and even then only for their older, established brands and not the newer ones. When a niche house like L'Artisan Parfumeur makes a perfume version of their scent (as they did recently with Mûre et Musc Extrait), it's an event, and if Serge Lutens started making perfumes in smart little quarter-ounce bottles, fragrance fanatics everywhere would spontaneously combust along with their credit cards. But Anné Pliska is available as perfume for the 1980s-level price of $68 for a quarter ounce. The EDP is $55 for a two-ounce spray, and if you can ignore the packaging--or hey, if you like the packaging, not everyone is me, not everyone shares my taste--then you're talking about a bargain.

(Over on my other blog I have a posting about the Anné Pliska blog, if you're interested.)

Friday, July 10, 2009

Night Blooming: Tom Ford Black Orchid

While in New York in May, I managed to limit myself to two scents, and it kind of figures that both of them would be potent, relatively dark things that I wouldn't be able to wear much in the impending summer: A*Men Pure Malt and Tom Ford Black Orchid. Luckily for me, it's been a cool, overcast, mostly wet summer this year, and I've gotten all kinds of wear out of the two of them.

Black Orchid starts out big and stays that way for quite a while: a twist of citrus peel and a rooty earthiness suggestive of anise garnishing a huge wallop of stewed fruit. Tom Ford's perfumer, I think, has been taking a page from the book of Serge Lutens and Christopher Sheldrake. (That rootiness is supposedly black truffle. The full list of notes, if that sort of thing interests you:

Top notes: Black Truffle, Ylang, Bergamot, Black Currant
Middle notes: Florals, Fruit and Lotus Wood
Base notes: Noir Gourmand, Patchouli, Incense and Vetiver

Eventually, the heady top settles down into an armload of ink-dark flowers dipped in vetiver (which becomes sharper and more piercing as the scent progresses). The stewed fruit hasn't quite vanished at this point, but it's a secondary player: the scent, after all, is called Black Orchid, not Rhubarb Compote.

At the bottom of Black Orchid is vanilla, presumably what the vendors are calling "Noir Gourmand", and by that they apparently mean the most beautiful vanilla imaginable: lush, silky, creamy, heart-stoppingly gorgeous, almost palpably three-dimensional. Even if I didn't love the rest of the composition, I would wear it, gladly, just to be able to smell this extraordinary vanilla.

One of the surprising things about Black Orchid is that there is no appreciable similarity between it and YSL Nu, which was also created by Tom Ford and which is also based on the orchid and its offspring, vanilla. Nu is loaded with incense and has just a spoonful of vanilla: Black Orchid reverses the proportions. Both have lots of dark florals and vetiver. And yet they could hardly be more different. It is this sort of thing that keeps perfume maniacs sniffing, sniffing, sniffing (not to mention buying, buying, buying).

You can't talk about Black Orchid and ignore the bottle, because it's spectacular, the kind of thing that will topple you over the edge into making a purchase if you were waffling. It's got a late-twenties Art Deco/Streamline feel to it: a flat little handful of black glass, round-shouldered, corrugated with shallow ribs that set the touch receptors in your fingertips vibrating when you run them along the surface, with an engraved gold plate on front and a gold cord wrapped around the neck, like a tiny lavaliere, bearing a little gold seal stamped with the initials TF. It is beyond a doubt a boudoir bottle: even before you've smelled the contents, it announces sensuality, luxury, exotic pleasures. The bottle and its contents are creatures of the night. (The one-ounce bottle is the most to my taste: I find the perfume bottle a bit squat and the 100-mL EDP bottle too massive, dwarfing the cap. The ounce seems to me to have gotten the proportions just right.)

Black Orchid is not cheap: $60 for the ounce, $140 for the 100-mL bottle, a startling $600 for a half-ounce of perfume. Though less pricey than Ford's Private Collection line (currently $180 for a 50-mL bottle), it is, like most niche perfumery, costlier than the average scent. It is entirely worth it.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Tropicana: Bond No. 9 Nuits de Noho

Yesterday I was writing tangentially about Bond No. 9 Nuits de Noho, not for the first time, and so it's high time I took a look at it.

The top is irrepressibly, irresponsibly cheerful, an amphetamine-fuelled chatterbox blast of citrus notes and pineapple. It's capital-F Fun. The pineapple--not particularly fresh or realistic, but recognizable--carries well down into the middle notes, which are mostly a fat garland of white jasmine sprinkled with sugar candy, leading into a sultry, sweetened vanilla-patchouli base. Nice patchouli, too: not too dirty, not too clean.

I couldn't tell you what any of this has to do with nighttime, or Noho, for that matter. It's more like Midday in Oahu: Hippies on the Beach. Sometimes I get the impression that Bond No. 9 has a list of New York neighbourhoods, and whatever scent the perfumer delivers to them gets the next name on the list, with the copy-writer then having to come up with with a compelling backstory.

But that is a minor quibble, a nothing. Nuits de Noho is delightful. It's big and a bit loud; it can wear you if you're not careful. But damned if it isn't Fun.


Some of you will no doubt be wondering just how off my old sample of Nuits de Noho had gone, and the answer is: pretty far off. The top is acidic, almost vinegary, and this acidulousness extends down in to the middle of the scent, contaminating it and warping it almost beyond recognition, with the patchouli taking on a muddy, garbagey tone. It's not pretty. Into the trash it goes.


Yesterday, reader Aparatchik had the following question:

I'm in the "use it now" camp. Seriously, what are we waiting for?

I don't know, either, but such people exist, for all kinds of things, not just fragrance, and one of them is my mom. Maybe ten years ago she showed me in a catalogue a fairly expensive set of china that she had ordered, Royal Doulton or the like, probably something like this

which is very pretty and which seems like the kind of thing she'd like. I noted that she already had a hutch filled with beautiful china which probably didn't get a whole lot of wear, and she said, "I'm not going to use it!" She couldn't make me understand that there was some sort of point to owning expensive dinnerware just to put it on display, and I couldn't make her understand that it was sort of crazy to spend a couple of thousand dollars for something that you were going to stick in a piece of furniture--and not even something that was meant for display, like a painting or a sculpture, but something that was designed to be used.

It's not just women. I'm not picking on my mom. Men do the same sort of thing with vehicles: buy an older car, spend enormous amounts of money and time fixing it up and perfecting it, and then never taking it out on the road. I don't get that, either.

I'm with Aparatchik. You're not going to live forever: the supply of sensual pleasures is finite, and you should take them where you can find them. If you have something and you love it, then enjoy it. If something happens to it--if you break a plate or get a cigarette burn on the upholstery or if that $300 bottle of perfume goes skunky--then so what? You've had a beautiful thing and you've enjoyed it, not just the pleasure of owning it--which I admit is not inconsequential--but the pleasure of using it and experiencing it in an immediate way, and isn't that better than putting it in a showcase where you can look but never touch?


Tuesday, July 07, 2009

A Cautionary Fable

Once upon a time I was doing a swap with someone who sent me a sample of Nuits de Noho, a Bond No. 9 scent, along with a bunch of other samples. At the time I got it, between 2003 (when it was launched) and May 2006 (when I wrote about it in passing), I had probably never even heard of Bond No. 9, though I certainly have now. I wore it a couple of times and put it in a dish in a medicine cabinet in which I keep my current rotation of scents.

Today I was fishing through that same dish and noticed a large vial of dark-gold liquid that I didn't recall having been in there before, and the quicker among you will already have divined that it 1) was Nuits de Noho and 2) it had gone south. And here is the proof:

The vial on the left is a new sample which I received from Bond No. 9 a while back: it had never even been removed from its twilight-blue foil wrapper before being photographed. On the right is the ill-fated sample which I had used a couple of times and then stored away in a dark place.

Colour change is usually an early indication that a scent has begun to turn. There are three main reasons that perfumes can spoil: light, oxidation, and bacterial contamination. Light has a lot of energy, especially sunlight, and while leaving your bottles on the dresser looks beautiful, it also exposes your fragile scents to endless streams of photons, which are only too happy to smash into and rip apart whatever aromatic molecules they encounter. Oxygen may be necessary for aerobic life, but it has an unfortunate effect on all kinds of matter: look at what happens to wet iron or light-exposed newspaper or cut fruit. The same is true of fragrances: exposure to oxygen can, well, oxidize them. As for bacterial load, the alcohol in most scents is enough to kill them off, for a while, but repeated exposure--tipping a perfume bottle against your wrist again and again--is going to introduce not only bacteria (some of which make a meal out of yummy essential oils) but the skin cells that bacteria also feed on, and eventually you have an organic soup that probably isn't going to smell the way it ought.

The decomposition of the Nuits de Noho was a surprise because I didn't think I had a problem with any of these destructors. The cabinet isn't perfectly light-tight, but it keeps out most light, and it's in a room that doesn't receive much direct light either. The vial had been opened at most three times a few years ago, so you'd think the exposure to oxygen and bacteria would have been kept to a minimum. But something happened, and it turned.

Not all scents that have begun to turn are destroyed. The top notes, composed of light, volatile, fragile molecules, are almost always the first to go, but the rest of the scent may be unaffected. Many vintage scents have a damaged or ruined top (often with a hint of acetone), but remain beautiful underneath that; some are reportedly even better, having aged as wine does.

I have fragrances that I've owned for years and they're just as fresh and alive as the first day I applied them. I've had scents that have turned--and really turned, becoming mucky and foul-smelling--within a year or two of purchase. I have a couple that are just beginning to go: the colour is slightly, but noticeably, darker than it was, or the top notes seem a little off (my Knowing parfum is starting to go a bit weird in the top, although the rest of it is still glorious). There doesn't seem to be any pattern to it. Even spray bottles, which limit the problems of oxygen and bacteria, can go: even aluminum spray bottles, which shut out all light, sometimes do. (I had a miniature of Gap Grass, gorgeous and much-missed, that turned filthy and unspeakable, an oily brownish sludge, despite being firmly sealed in a little aluminum canister.)

What might we learn from this? That your favourite could be snatched from you at any time. Enjoy it while you can. Don't save it for best. Love it. Use it while you can, deal with its departure, mourn if you must, and don't look back.

Or, of course, you could take the tack that I do, which is to own so damned much fragrance that you couldn't possibly use it up in a normal lifetime, which means that even if something does make an untimely departure, you'll have so many others to occupy you that you won't have time to mourn its passing.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Separated at Birth

Here we have a bottle of Escada Acte 2 eau de toilette and modestly talented flesh-baring neo-disco chantoozy Lady Gaga. Can you tell which is which?

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Burning Sensation: Annick Goutal Eau de Fier

According to Perfume Intelligence, Annick Goutal's Eau de Fier has notes of

bitter orange, osmanthus, salt flower, clove, tea, and birch

and doesn't that sound nice?

Here's what it smells like:

An enormous quantity of hot tar;

a recently extinguished but still smouldering tire fire;

a campfire with some catalogues and old shoes thrown onto it;

a colossal vat of freshly brewed, heavily smoked black tea;

and a guy in new leather.

Oh, it starts off with a bit of orange peel, but after that it's just hot smoky tar and burning things and black tea and leather. It is just exactly as disagreeable and as hypnotic as that sounds. It's Bulgari Black and some Demeter leathers and L'Artisan Parfumeur Tea for Two concentrated down and mixed together and unleashed on an unsuspecting world.

Here's the really weird thing: it has almost no lasting power. Two hours and it's hardly even there any more. Wouldn't you think that something so tarry and dark and intense would stick around for at least eight to ten hours, if not overnight?

I can't find a picture of the bottle but what the hell, all the Goutal men's bottles are the same, so this will do.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Healthy Dose: Farmacia Annunziata Patchouly Indonesiano

You know that smell when you open a bottle of multivitamins? That's the very first thing I smelled when I tried Farmacia Annunziata's Patchouly Indonesiano. Mostly the B vitamins, I think, because the oil-soluble vitamins don't have much of a smell, whereas the Bs not only have a smell in the bottle, they will dye your urine bright yellow and give it a characteristic odour as well. As soon as I thought that, of course, I thought of that Christmas episode of South Park in which Kyle describes his grandmother as smelling of "vitamins and pee", though fortunately Patchouly Indonesiano doesn't smell of urine. Vitamins, though? You betcha. Vitamins and patchouli.

I'm not even sure why I bothered to try this, since i know perfectly well that 1) I don't really like patchouli, at least not that earthy, dirty straight-up head-shop patchouli, and 2) patchouli doesn't like me, either. But I just have to try everything, and since I'd gotten a bunch of free samples with my last order from Luckyscent and this was one of them, I figured I owed it.

The patchouli, and I'll give it credit for this, is enormously complex; there's a wad of anise just after the vitamins, a sharp pine-cleanser aroma coupled with a loamy forest floor (as if you were cleaning some tree stumps), a bit of wet wool, and a deep chocolate warmth, among other things. It's like wine in that regard, full of bits and pieces you wouldn't necessarily expect to find in such a single-minded fragrance. It is, of course, tenacious and aggressive, even down to its texture, which is viscous and grabby. I am surprised that I don't actually hate Patchouly Indonesiano: I don't love it, and I would certainly never own a bottle of it, but its shifting, multicoloured complexity is at least interesting. It makes you think, and I like that in a scent.

What it really boils down to is that if you like patchouli, then you will probably like Patchouly Indonesiano quite a lot, and if you do not like patchouli, then this is the sort of thing you ought to steer well clear of, though you already knew that.